Hoda Kotb, a Stranger on a Plane, and His Simple Advice She’ll Never Forget

On one of the Today show cohost's darkest days, her seatmate’s wise words about breast cancer were a ray of light.

hoda kobtMatt Baron/Shutterstock

In March 2007, I was recovering from major surgery for breast cancer and going through a divorce. It was a terrible time, and I was spending most of my days at home keeping everything to myself. Then a Today show colleague threw me a lifeline by asking whether I felt well enough to tape a “Where in the World?” segment.

“Why don’t you pick a couple of days and go to Ireland and escape?” he suggested kindly. I thought it would be a great way to forget about it all, so I jumped at the chance.

The trip was fun because I was living in the moment, but by the time I got on the plane to go home, I wasn’t feeling well. My plan was to curl up in a ball and sleep for the entire flight. I had my earbuds in my hand; they were an inch away from going in when the guy next to me turned to me and said, “Hi. Howya doin’?”

I thought, Oh no.

Then he said, “I recognize you from somewhere.”

“I work on the Today show,” I told him, still holding my earbuds.

He smiled at me. “How’s Al? Al seems funny.”

All I wanted to do was sleep, but he had kind eyes and looked like a good-hearted guy. So we continued making small talk.

Then he noticed I was wearing a compression sleeve on my arm and asked, “What is that?”

I told him I’d had a “procedure” and needed the sleeve to fly, hoping we could change the subject.

But he continued, “What procedure did you have?”

“I had an operation,” I said vaguely. He was still curious, so I finally said, “I had breast cancer. But, boy, I hope that’s not the first thing you think of when you get off this flight, telling your kids, ‘Hey, I sat next to this girl with breast cancer.’ ”

He paused for a moment and then said, “What’s wrong with that? Breast cancer is part of you, like going to college or getting married.”

I could feel my eyes filling up.

“Let me give you some advice: Don’t hog your journey. It’s not just for you,” he said. “Think of how many people you could help.”

I had tears coming down my face, and I said to him, “I can’t believe I’m crying in front of you. I don’t even know you.”

“Look, you have a choice in life,” he said. “You can either put your stuff deep in your pockets and take it to your grave, or you can help someone.”

Even though I’m on a show where we’re pretty open, I was really struggling then. I’ve always been a very private person, and aside from the few people who needed to know, I’d kept my illness secret. I didn’t want to be defined by my weakness.

But this man, whose name was Ken Duane, showed me that my illness gave me strength—because it gave me the ability to lighten someone else’s load. I decided at that moment that I was going to share my story publicly. Later that year, I talked about my illness and my conversation with Ken on air with Ann Curry.

Years later, a producer who used to work on our show mentioned that her boyfriend was in charge of an event, and she thought I knew the honoree. It was Ken.

He and I hadn’t seen each other since we’d met on the plane, but Ken’s best friend wound up contacting me and asking me to help present Ken with a Father of the Year award at a luncheon in New York. Ken was sitting there grinning as I said, “He’s touched a lot of people’s lives. He obviously touched a stranger like me.”

Everything came full circle a few years ago when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He called me and said he now understood what it felt like. I told him it seemed as if he’d always understood: It’s better to share and heal than to try to hide away.

He is healthy now, and I am forever grateful that I never got that trans­atlantic nap.

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Hoda Kotb, as told to Diane Clehane
Honda Kotb is a cohost of Today's fourth hour and a correspondent for Dateline NBC.